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Tucked in a corner in Lion’s Head Village sits Sonobana, a taste of Tokyo on White Bridge Road. Yuji Agari, or “Agari-san,” as he’s known to longtime customers, is the owner and head chef. He’s been at the restaurant since it opened in the late 1980s as Benkay.
The business is a family affair. Agari’s wife, Priscilla, is also his partner in the restaurant. Three of the couple’s five children work at Sonobana. Daughter Masami is a sushi chef. Son Yoshi works at the sushi bar and in the kitchen. Another daughter, Hitomi, runs the adjacent market, where customers can find everything from green tea Kit Kats to noodles and spices.
Although you’ll find Sriracha sauce on the shelves, Hitomi says 99 percent of the products are Japanese. The market also has Japanese books and DVDs customers can buy or rent. Take note: the movies do not have subtitles.
Owner interview: Priscilla Agari
How was the culture in those early years?
Right now we have two sushi chefs that are young ladies. One is our daughter and one is another sushi chef’s daughter. When I first came here, it was unheard of to have a girl or a non-Japanese or a non-Asian [be a sushi chef]. So, we had a woman working there but she looked like a guy.
She wore a headband and pretended to be a guy making sushi. Nobody knew she was a girl. It was so funny because I think it was more the Japanese feeling than it was American because, you know, American people wouldn’t have had a problem with that at all. But my husband, especially, was, like, “Yeah, you can’t really have women doing that.”
Is there a customer favorite on the menu?
Well, now we have the Sonobana roll and that’s really popular. It’s really big. Also, over the years, the trends have become more Americanized. Putting mayonnaise and cheese in things was not something that would have happened when they first opened.
Tell me about the Bill Murray picture.
Somebody drew that. Somebody drew it and I don’t believe it was Bill Murray. We do have people come in here of various levels of stardom, but we don’t have pictures of people on the wall like some places. We try to treat everybody with the same level of respect and honor.
See photos a few photos below: